Book Review of ‘Governing Through Goals’

The latest issue of Transnational Environmental Law (Volume 6 – Issue 3 – November 2017) features my Book Review of ‘Governing Through Goals: Sustainable Development Goals as Governance Innovation‘, an interesting volume edited by Norichika Kanie (Senior Research Fellow at UNU-IAS) and Frank Biermann (Professor of Global Sustainability Governance at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development) which analyses the challenges and opportunities of goal-setting as a governance strategy.

The book, published by MIT Press, is available here.

You can read the review, written together with Prof. Riccardo Pavoni (Professor of International Law at the University of Siena), here.

 

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Environmental determinants of health: how can global health governance contribute?

The following opinion piece has appeared, in two different forms, on Sense & Sustainability and in ASviS‘s newsletter.

According to a 2012 study by the World Health Organization (WHO), environmental factors are directly or indirectly responsible for almost 13 million deaths worldwide, or about twenty-three percent of all deaths. Overall, more than one third of lower respiratory infections, over half of diarrhoeal diseases, forty-two percent of malaria infections, one fifth of all cancers and a significant proportion of chronic obtrusive respiratory diseases and cardiovascular diseases are attributable to environmental determinants of health, including household and outdoor pollution, lack of access to clean water and sanitation, proliferation of disease vectors, and exposure to chemicals.

To put it simply, environmental conditions, and more specifically the changing ecological dynamics which characterize the Anthropocene, help to determine whether people are healthy, and how long they live. By undermining the benefits that people obtain from healthy ecosystems, environmental degradation effectively acts as both a cause and a multiplier of health threats, and as the level of global environmental change dangerously approaches the threshold of the planetary boundaries which regulate the resilience of the Earth system, the deterioration of human well-being will likely increase and be characterized by surprise and uncertainty.

Environmental determinants represent an insidious threat to public health for three different reasons. First, because they are driven by unsustainable patterns of resource consumption, technological development and population growth which operate almost entirely outside of the boundaries of the health sector, and thus are particularly difficult for traditional health actors  to engage with. Secondly, because in the past environmental degradation has coincided with a stark improvement in health outcomes, a condition that has described as “mortgaging the health of future generations”. Finally, because environmental impacts on health are usually uneven across life course, geography and gender, and they also operate in different ways with respect to different diseases, thus making it hard to design holistic public health strategies for prevention and response. The question, then, becomes an obvious one: how could health-focused institutions, and particularly the WHO, the United Nations agency tasked with guiding and supporting policy-making on health issues, contribute?

A global health approach to environmental degradation?

At first glance, it would seem misguided to think that health as a sector of global governance could ever be fit for the purpose of addressing the environmental determinants of ill health. From a pragmatic perspective, global health actors are simply not in the position to deal with the whole range of environmental risk factors operating across different levels of governance and spatial scales, including chemicals, biodiversity loss, land degradation, climate change, and water and air quality. From a historical perspective, despite the fact that over the last few decades several environmental agreements have explicitly incorporated health considerations within their preambles, in specific provisions or even as their primary objectives, the international institutions patrolling the two areas of health and environment have usually operated with separate and unlinked agendas.

At the same time, the situation appears to have evolved in recent years, owing to attempts at fostering a greater collaboration between the work of the WHO and other international institutions (for example, the UN Environment Programme/WHO’s Health and Environment Linkages Initiative and the UNECE/WHO-Europe’s Protocol on Water and Health) as well as to WHO’s increasingly vocal leadership on the public health implications of climate change, culminating in the 2016 Marrakech Declaration on “Health, Environment and Climate Change”.

In this context, two important developments can be emphasized. First, from a legal standpoint, the interlinkages between health and environment have increasingly been framed in the language of human rights, through the emergence of the concept of a ‘right to a healthy environment’. Whilst the understanding of the obligations that such a right would impose on governments and private actors varies greatly, the sharp increase in domestic and international litigation linked with environmental health considerations cannot be ignored, and will arguably play a growing role in complementing the ‘compliance’ gap which characterizes many international environmental regimes. Secondly, from a broader political standpoint, health considerations might be used (and indeed, increasingly are) as a catalyst for raising ambitions and creating political momentum around a certain environmental issue, as recently shown by the advocacy of WHO, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) and the Government of Norway on the health risks of short-lived climate pollutants as part of the BreatheLife global campaign.

Environment and health: the necessity of targeting co-benefits

Beyond courts and political leadership, however, there are several additional ways in which the nature of WHO as a normative and technical support agency could be harnessed in addressing the environmental determinants of health. These of course, are not meant to undermine the authority of environmental governance actors. On the contrary, they could be key in reaping the full health co-benefits that can come from environmental policies, whilst in turn encouraging bolder ambition and integration among different regimes.

First, the uptake of multi-sectoral approaches to policy design, such as the concept of Health in All Policies (HiAP) and the One Health approach, appears necessary to operationalise the linkages between Sustainable Development Goal 3 (‘Ensure Healthy Lives and Promote Well-Being for All at All Ages’) and the other Goals and targets contained in the 2030 Agenda. For example, greater mutual supportiveness can arise from the improvement of environmental impact assessment laws, with a view to ensure an adequate consideration of the interplay between health and environment impacts in decision-making. Despite a consensus on the need to integrate Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) and EIAs, such an integration remains problematic. On the one hand, EIAs rarely incorporate assessments of pathways between environmental exposures and health outcomes. On the other, the promotion of HIAs as a separate tool greatly contributes to fragmentation and unnecessary overlaps. In this context, renewed UNEP/WHO efforts under the Health and Environment Linkages Initiative could be instrumental in providing the necessary assistance to countries seeking to develop more integrated frameworks for impact assessment.

Secondly, WHO’s expertise can be leveraged to promote a more effective implementation of multilateral environmental agreements. Focusing in particular on capacity-building for risk reduction, risk assessment and improved coordination among sectors and stakeholders, WHO can help by fostering development of national action plans, use of guidelines and standards, and dissemination of training materials (one recent example involving a Secretariat report on the contribution of the health sector to safe chemical management). In addition, WHO can provide strong evidence of health impacts arising from environmental degradation and/or green economy strategies, due to its expertise on health metrics and indicators, and accordingly contribute to strengthening and harmonizing surveillance and monitoring of progress. Finally, WHO should promote the resilience of health systems in the face of environmental change (including climate change). This would entail encouraging the inclusion of health elements into national climate adaptation plans, ensuring an effective training and management of health personnel to deploy in disaster response, and providing specific guidance on the improvement of public health infrastructure and the assessment of vulnerability and adaptation costs.

During his election campaign, Dr. Tedros Adhanom, the new Director-general of the WHO, has effectively laid out a vision for placing health at the center of the global sustainable development agenda, and accordingly identified environmental change as one of his top five priorities. As the SDGs turn two years old this September, the urgency of streamlining such a vision into the work of the organization and in the wider UN system grows stronger with each day.

Jean Monnet Module proposal selected by the European Commission

Exciting news! The European Commission’s Education, Audiovisuals and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA) has selected a Jean Monnet Module proposal I wrote with Prof. Riccardo Pavoni (University of Siena) for co-funding under the Erasmus+ Programme (Call EAC/A03/2016).

Among the 833 proposals received by the EACEA for Jean Monnet teaching and research activities, 141 were selected for funding. The project activities will now be hosted by the Department of Law of the University of Siena and implemented over the course of three years.

EULawSD seeks to explore the ever-expanding corpus of European Union Law relating to sustainable development, with an emphasis on its interactions with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the United Nations in September 2015. The module will consist of an annual 40-hour course primarily aimed at students of the Single Cycle Degree Programme in Law at the University of Siena, but also open to students from the Political Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences departments. The course will be complemented, on an annual basis, by a keynote opening lecture, a final expert roundtable, a dedicated website, and a series of webinars.

I am honored to be a co-recipient of such a prestigious grant, among the hundreds of applications received by the EACEA, and I look forward to my involvement as manager of the module’s activities despite my distance from Siena.

The full list of selected proposals can be found here.

New Policy Brief from SDSN Youth

I am happy to announce the publication of a new joint Policy Brief by UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network – Youth and The Social Investment Consultancy on “Supporting youth-led innovation to achieve the SDGs”, which I co-authored.

The Brief, presented on 17 July 2017 at the United Nations‘ High-level Political Forum in New York, outlines a series of opportunities for action by all stakeholders to leverage youth skills and solutions in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“Among its repeated references to the importance of partnerships for sustainable development, the 2030 Agenda emphasizes the role of children and young people as “critical agents for change” and encourages the UN Major Groups (including the UN Major Group on Children and Youth) to participate in the review of, and report on their contribution to the achievement of the SDGs.

In order to move beyond statements of principles, however, it remains essential to assess the real extent to which young people worldwide are delivering solutions to sustainable development challenges at all levels, as well as to investigate (and learn how to overcome) the barriers preventing young innovators and problem-solvers from implementing their projects and bringing them to scale.”

You can download the publication at http://www.youthsolutions.report/publications/. Please direct any inquiries to solutions@sdsnyouth.org.

On the 41st session of the WHC

As the G20 Summit in Hamburg wraps up to considerable media attention, I would like to spend some time reflecting on the other intergovernmental meeting currently under way, namely the 41st session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (the body tasked with overseeing the implementation of the World Heritage Convention and managing the World Heritage List and the World List of Heritage in Danger).

This year, the Committee has addressed important dossiers, including increased logging in the Białowieża Forest, the widespread destruction of the Site of Palmyra, and the repeated coral bleaching events affecting the Great Barrier Reef. For many of the sites inscribed in the two lists, the negative human impacts are growing, and certain country policies plainly run counter to the objectives of the Convention.

At the same time, however, the World Heritage Convention remains a powerful symbol of hope, and a testament to how sites of outstanding cultural and natural value speak to the very existence of humankind on planet Earth. In particular, the new inscriptions shall remind us of the quintessential importance of the interactions between different populations, religions and cultures in shaping human civilization as we know it (the Hebron/Al Khalil Old Town in the West Bank, the Historic City of Yazd in Iran, Kulangsu island in China); of the inextinguishable interplay between nature and culture in creating unique cultural landscapes which underpin the identity of human societies (the Kujataa farming landscape in Greenland, Taputapuātea on Ra’iatea Island, the ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape between Botswana and Namibia); and of the multiple direct and indirect functions played by natural ecosystems around the world, ranging from their role as habitats of vulnerable and rare species to the irreplaceable services they provide for human well-being (the Landscapes of Dauria in Mongolia, the W-Arly-Pendjari Complex in the Sudano-Sahelian region, the Primeval Beech Forests in the Carpathians and other areas of Europe).

In times of unprecedented threats to the world’s cultural and natural heritage, the work of UNESCO truly is invaluable, and after 35 years the World Heritage Convention continues to be one of the most relevant instruments in multilateral cooperation on global public goods. This is why all parties should refrain from politicizing its work, and instead seek to strengthen its contribution to cultural diplomacy, local livelihoods, and environmental protection.

For the newly inscribed properties, see: http://whc.unesco.org/en/newproperties/.

Interview for #Faces4Change

A few months ago I was interviewed by UN Environment Cities and Lifestyles as part of their #Faces4Change Project, aimed at showcasing stories of young professionals integrating the #SDGs into their work and daily lifestyle.

The result is an informal chat that you can now read here, in the campaign’s website, together with anecdotes from other brilliant young innovators and leaders from around the world: http://faces4change.org/stories/piselli.html.